Open Sandman: Salvia Divinorum, Lord of Dreams (Part II)
To read the first part of this piece click here.
AT HIGHER DOSES, the initial effect of smoked salvia upon the human psyche resembles that of general anaesthesia in that within seconds the subject ‘goes under’ despite resistive efforts to stay alert. With anaesthesia, however, one is ‘knocked out’ and remains more or less unconscious until revival; with salvia, one goes under not into insensate unconsciousness but into a kind of dreamscape, what some consider a spirit world. It is essential to measure out precise quantities: too little salvia and you do not go under (or ‘break through’ as others refer to it); too much and you recall little or nothing.
In retrospect, it was imprudent of us not to have had a method for accurately measuring out the salvia or even for just making a fair estimate. As we were dealing with 10x fortified leaf (a concentrate ten times the strength of the natural form), the distinction between not enough and too much is slight. Our method—just pack a bowl’s worth—was crude to say the least. Before smoking the salvia I do remember looking at the vial—which stated it contained leaf for ten doses—and noticing that it seemed more than one-tenth empty. But I did not dwell on it. After my initial uneventful experience in Gloucester, I didn’t want another salvia no-show.
This time it proved to be more than enough, and I mean this not in its loose popular meaning of ‘an abundantly welcome amount’ but in its strictly literal sense of ‘more than required.’ Unfortunately I recollect very little from the experience. I am not even sure if my eyes were shut throughout it or not. I do believe that my eyelids closed of their own accord several seconds after the birch trees started sidewinding on me simply because my external environment—the tree trunks, the foliage, the azure patchwork of sky—played no role in the little that I do remember. In fact, the feeling was very much like sinking into a deep ultra-active dream.
Although the details elude me, I do remember that something vividly terrible was happening to me, that malicious creatures had surrounded me and were closing in. This was not merely a feeling. They were tangibly there in the form of—if I am not mistaken—shifting, venomously colorful geometric shapes, like a gang of Lego monsters. These evil presences (or was it one evil presence with multiple minion Hydra heads?) were enclosing me on my left and right, looming over me. I recall them cackling hysterically at me, although I think I was hearing in color and patterns rather than sound, as if my senses had jumbled and merged. I was desperate to escape but felt trapped. It was a textbook nightmare.
Salvia experiences are often directionally-specific: it was happening ‘over there,’ the person later reports, or it was coming from ‘up there.’ On examination these directions often correlate to some sensory event in the external environment—the birdcall of a red-winged blackbird perched overhead, the westerly blaze of the setting sun, the pressure of a chair’s frame against one’s upper back. I suspect that my feeling of being hemmed in from the left and right stems resulted because I was hanging in a hammock, with my body hugged by netting on both sides.
I do recall being vaguely aware that I was in a hammock and that I had better jump out of it to save my life. I also had the vague feeling—unpleasant as it is to admit this—that these evil creatures were in some way connected to my friends and that they had all turned against me. In short, the entire universe had turned malevolent. But though everything was screaming ‘jump, JUMP!’ (in retrospect I’m amazed I did not leap out of the hammock) there was a voice from somewhere deep inside me telling me, Don’t jump, stay put, just wait it out.
Part of the reason the salvia experience can be so horrible (although this seems to be exclusive to higher doses) is that when you are under its thrall, you have no awareness that you’ve ingested anything. It is much the same as with dreams: one does not question a dream’s reality, nor is one conscious of dreaming, except when in that rare and wonderful state known as lucid dreaming. It was not until a few minutes had passed—and I can only refer to this time span because that’s how long my friends say I was lying there, silent and immobile aside from occasional twitching—that I realized with relief that I had taken salvia.
-Oh, I took salvia, I see now… I suddenly declared. And with those words I lifted my head up and looked around. I was still feeling the salvia—the effects would perceptibly linger for another twenty minutes or so—but I had emerged from the nightmare.
All too aware of how close I had come to throwing myself out of the hammock, the first thing I did—and I wasted no time in doing so—was climb out. I was briefly disoriented, and almost fell back into the hammock upon standing up, but my sense of balance was soon restored. I was at a loss of words. I mumbled something about how salvia should never be taken while in a hammock. Though it may sound like the sort of cliché phrase you see in promotional blurbs for horror flicks, the fact was that this salvia experience had been as bad as my worst nightmares.
What made it so infernal was the feeling of helplessness before the presence of a malicious force. It is one thing to contend with dramatic hallucinations, another to be overcome by a nightmare sense of futility and vulnerability (i.e. consider the classic dream scenario of being stuck in quicksand, unable to move, never mind run away, in the face of an approaching killer). There are a great many myths surrounding psychoactive substances, especially mushrooms and LSD, one being that they transform the universe into either a distorted, leering House of Mirrors or into the sort of tie-dyed Grateful Dead landscape that so much third-rate ‘acid art’ purports to depict with its predictable array of multi-rayed suns and multi-armed Shivas. All this is a grotesque exaggeration of what is essentially the same world experienced in a heightened state of sensory and perceptual awareness.
The only encounter I have had in which I found myself in a kind of anything-goes carnival universe was in my first year as an undergraduate at Columbia. Along with M and S, I had taken a few drags off a joint which, unbeknownst to the three of us, had been laced with some hallucinogenic substance. M later described how at one point the walls were covered with hundreds of eyes, blinking and staring at him. S, meanwhile, discovered in the shower that his extended left arm, which he was scrubbing with soap, was several miles long. As for me, I was, among other things, having peanut butter complications. I had dipped my forefinger into a jar, but just as I brought my finger towards my mouth, the clump of peanut butter had transformed into a giant Dumbo-like elephant with flapping wings, then into a roaring tiger, and finally into a python with a swinging head and flickering tongue. I don’t know how long I sat there, ogling at these fabulous creatures on my fingertip, but finally I closed my eyes, overcome by the munchies, and devoured the reptile.
Although the world I had unexpectedly found myself in that night was certainly bizarre and unpredictable, with more than its share of mental hobgoblins, it did not seem malevolent. While my outer world had perceptibly changed, I had still retained my sense of self. I was aware that a substance had induced these hallucinations and therefore was able to respond to them or ‘defend myself’ by keeping a relatively cool head.
The salvia, however, had brought on the nightmare feeling that something hostile was consciously out to get me. With salvia, the outer world is not merely changed but rather obliterated and reconstituted into something entirely alien—and sometimes entirely wicked—while one’s inner poise and self-control is yanked away, leaving one as vulnerable and confused as a washed-up jellyfish.
My friends could see I was not exactly gung-ho about my salvia encounter. The frightfulness of being hemmed in was still lingering and I felt I needed to walk. Even the foliage of the birch trees seemed constricting; I wanted an open sky overhead and the expanse of an ocean before me. I set off but returned two minutes later. I knew someone else was going to try the salvia and I wanted to be there for that.
Z decided to go next. He sat in a foldable chair that M had brought. S and I promptly positioned ourselves on stumps between him and the campfire. Nearby was another stump with an axe lodged into it, which I moved a distance away. M then prepared the pipe for Z as he had done for me.
Z’s response took us all by surprise. Rarely is Z fazed by uncomfortable situations, the kind that for others would be unbearable. He has suffered from flesh-eating worms in the Bolivian jungle, motorcycled cross country without sleeping in a bed for weeks at a time, shat bloody pieces of his innards in India, spent the night alone and miles from anyone in the Mexican desert while under peyote, etc. Although he never deliberately seeks out discomfort, as with any serious traveler, plenty of it comes with the territory.
This time Z was definitely fazed. Within thirty seconds or so his eyes widened in an expression of anxiety that would remain until he had emerged from salvia’s clutches. At one point he leaned forward and reached his arms out, as if he wanted to escape the chair. S and I supported him as he stood up since his sense of balance had been severely handicapped. He curled down briefly on the ground, resting his head upon a heap of twigs, but no sooner had he lain down that he struggled to his feet again.
Though his eyes remained wide open the whole time, he did not seem to be seeing, at least not the world that was shared by the rest of us. In fact, with his arms extended before him, his hands tentatively groping at the air, and his lost expression, Z looked like a man who had just been struck blind. He was, however, able to respond positively when S asked him if he wanted to sit back in the chair.
Recalling my own confusion and consternation, I tried to remind him that he had merely taken salvia to reassure him that he was fine. I thought that would help settle him into the salvia experience free of the all-consuming distraction of anxiety. One could, of course, argue with a trial-by-fire logic that how you handle the anxiety is the experience. Regardless, my words seemed to have no consequence. It was about as effective as telling someone who is tossing under a nightmare not to worry since it’s all just a dream.
Upon emerging from his salviamare, Z was surprised to hear that he had left the chair and sprawled upon the forest floor. What he did remember is encountering a void of sensory deprivation and fighting to emerge from it, to return to the world he knew, the world of his senses.
-It gave me an awareness, Z later told me, that reality is like a canvas and you can tear the canvas and look behind it. The canvas is your personality and consciousness and you can fall away from that and there’s blackness behind, non-sensory perception. The plant taught me that our consciousness is fragile and that there is a blackness out there. I didn’t want to be in it because it was an absence; I wanted to be with you guys, in a place with sounds and colors. It wasn’t pleasant, you don’t enjoy yourself, but it was an alternative look on reality so I’m glad I did it. I don’t really think I need that look again.
Z had also described how this salvia-induced canvas-like world was at one point displayed in folds, as if superimposed upon a handheld fan. A few hours later he saw on the ground near the campfire a cheap colorful fan that had apparently been left discarded by previous campers. Although he could not recall having seen the fan, it was obvious that he had unconsciously made note of it earlier in the day. Out of this mere passing glance, the fan had come to occupy an essential architectural role in constructing his salvia reality.
S went next. The first time he had tried salvia, excluding the failed Gloucester attempt, had been several weeks earlier. He had had what he described as an out-of-body experience, although instead of the conventional (conventional as far as ‘OBEs’ go) sense of floating directly up and out of the body, he instead got pulled out of himself to the left, perhaps because his head had been leaning leftward at the time. When his friend had asked him how he was feeling, he merely pointed to his right, saying “He’s over there.” His sense of leaving his body had been primarily aural rather than visual: it had not been so much that he could see himself to his right, but rather that he could hear himself over there giggling.
While all this had left him with a recognition that the plant had to be approached with respect, as he put it, the positive nature of the experience had left him interested and curious to try it again. What he did not anticipate was that at higher doses the plant could show a more sinister face.
Within thirty seconds of exhaling the smoke, S was speaking in tongues. He was grunting and yowling in his own private language that seemed perfectly comprehensible to him but that was gibberish to us. His eyes, more glazed than shining, were sometimes open, sometimes closed, but he had a possessed look unlike any I’d ever seen on him, as if he’d been transformed into a different being. At first I thought S was just acting and having fun with us, but then I realized it was no make-believe. He soon began pawing at the air. Occasionally his peculiar howl-speech would be interrupted by a bout of laughter.
It was impossible for us to keep straight faces. Our suppressed chortling soon escalated into full-fledged laughter. I think we all wanted to stop guffawing but we couldn’t help ourselves. It was all so goddam crazy. If his salvia experience was anything like mine had been, then our laughter—assuming it was even penetrating his consciousness—would take on malicious overtones. But we soon quieted down, because it was clear by S’s occasional troubled looks that something was also profoundly disturbing him. At one point he crawled out of his chair to the ground, rolled onto his back and began kicking his legs in the air. This inverted waggling of the legs, the inability to communicate, the reaching forth of his arms… it all pointed to one likely scenario
: S was undergoing an infantile regression.
After about five minutes had passed—and I can’t remember if S was still on the ground or back in the chair—he suddenly ‘returned,’ albeit still dazed and under salvia’s sway:
-Oh, what did I do? Did I smoke…? Oh, there you are…. Okay… Oh, sorry about that… Oh God I don’t want anymore of that! Aarrghh… No, okay, I’m all right. I’m okay… Oh God, you don’t want to do that. I just couldn’t even keep up with you guys. It felt like everybody’s head was just stuck through a… Oh my goodness. I was trying to talk to you guys…
Initially S seemed slightly embarrassed, in much the same way that a volunteer of a showman hypnotist might feel upon awakening from a spell of hypnosis only to discover himself in some compromising position in front of a laughing auditorium. K later told us that he had found S’s behavior so disquieting that he started praying for the return of his friend. It seemed, K said, as if some other presence, some alien thing, had displaced and briefly taken over S’s mind. Not long after that, K left the campfire to walk off the afternoon’s troubling sights.
The first part of the experience that S remembered was being on his back and seeing people around him, although ‘people’ isn’t exactly the right word:
-They looked like human shapes, S later said, but they were all glowing, like lights, with astral bodies and mushroom-shaped heads. I suppose it was all of you but I thought it was my family. These are the first things I remember. Those people were soothing, but at the same time they were putting me down like a child, like I wasn’t allowed to join them. I felt infantile, like a four-year-old. There was a horizontal layer of energy, a blanket of light. I was trying to rise above that surface to where those people were but I couldn’t burst through it. Even if I pushed through, it fell around me like a film, like a surface. I remember thinking, am I going to drown? But I could breathe so I wasn’t going to drown. It wasn’t a smooth blanket. It fell down on me in chunks, like keys on a keyboard. Eventually I was able to climb through it more… There was a lot of sound to it. The visual images are mostly mental ones. I think you’re more connected to the salvia world through sound… I think you have to do it with an experienced person, someone who knows what they’re doing, and build up to it. I bet you could utilize that drug for inner visions if you did it the right way, but I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know if I want to try.
Despite the succession of increasingly unsettling salvia sessions, M decided to go next. He opted to move away from the enclosed fire circle and smoke the salvia while sitting cross-legged in a sunny patch of grass in a nearby clearing. He also asked us to keep any interactions with him to a minimum. He felt that, even though one is disconnected from the outside world when under salvia, there still exists a thread of connection that can dramatically alter the nature of the experience (his previous encounter with salvia bore this out: some Navajo drumming chants had been playing softly on the stereo at the time and had, as he described, cut him in two; each split, arrayed in color and fabric, separated to reveal a Navajo man emerging behind his ‘split self’).
It was not long after he had exhaled the salvia that his upper body slumped forward and he began to slightly rock to and fro, smiling. Soon he was laughing uncontrollably, while mumbling something that sounded like ‘Shit’s about to change.’ This effort kept escalating until his whole body was convulsing with the laughter, drool hanging and spittle flying from his lips as he yelled, “Fish is about to change! Fish is about to change!”
M later described that he had felt himself pulled out of his own body until he was seeing himself through a second pair of eyes, then a third, then fourth, and so on.
-I could actually physically see the phrase Something important in your life is about to change, M recounted. But then the salvia started chipping away at the phrase and the fonts started pulling out. I was trying to say the phrase but my speech was crippled and so the words kept changing. It changed to Something’s about to change then to Shit’s about to change and then to Fish is about to change. And it was so absurd I started laughing.
It’s possible that the change of environment—the sunny clearing as opposed to the foliage-enclosed tree grove—played some role in taking off some of that menacing edge that had so battered S, Z and I. By this point, K, J and C were left to try—or not try—the salvia. After witnessing the reactions of Z and then S, K had made it clear that he was not touching the stuff. Also, he was also still off on a walk. After his own episode, Z had advised J against trying salvia, but J finally decided he would.
His experience was markedly milder. He smiled and started chuckling to himself, but the salvia never overwhelmed him—he never broke through. Ironically enough, J, who had been the most hesitant about the potency of the substance, ended up being the most disappointed that the experience had not been strong enough.
Daniel Siebert, whose substantial explorations, research and writings on salvia has made him one of the plant’s top authorities, writes in his online guide that it is important to hold the smoke deeply in the lungs for twenty to thirty seconds to ensure that the salvinorin A is absorbed from the smoke. If one exhales too quickly, the psychoactive agent will only be partially absorbed. Even though J did not end up smoking the entire bowl’s worth, the reason the salvia didn’t overcome him is probably merely because he did not hold the smoke in his lungs for long enough.
M decided on impulse to smoke the remainder of the salvia in the bowl when J handed it back to him. Shortly after smoking it he walked about thirty feet away and stood under a small grove of trees. It was close enough so that the rest of us could keep an eye on him while also watching over J. Although M seemed to be fairly composed for the first few minutes, he at one point leaned his elbow upon a tree trunk and began laughing into the crook of his arm.
-I could feel it coming on, M later told me. But it was J’s trip and I didn’t want to interfere with it so I went over by those trees. I could feel that it was trying to overwhelm me but it couldn’t, it was jammed, like a cog. I eventually fell into it again, but I’m interested in that I was able to postpone it.
C went next. His experience outwardly resembled J’s as he did not react in any way aside from some smiling and laughing. But unlike J, who described only a sense of lightheadedness and a wave of mellowness, C saw a pulsing object and sensed being on the verge of breaking through.
-It was a deep-seated body feeling, C described. I had a deeper sense of color, and my surroundings were more solid. I lost track of all of you being there. Out of the left corner of my head I could feel a steady knocking and could also feel it in my body. I could also see something, an outward arc on my left that was moving to the right along the ground to a pulsing sound, which may have been my heartbeat. The arc was made up of small three-dimensional blocks. I want to say it was yellow. I was a bit scared because I didn’t know what it was. This reverberating arc swung around and lined up in front of me. I thought it was going to hit me. I wasn’t sure what would happen. But when it landed there it stopped pulsing and I knew at
that point that it wasn’t going to go anywhere else. I had no idea I was laughing.
C had been sitting very upright, maintaining a straight back throughout the salvia episode.
-I think posture makes a big difference, C added. I didn’t feel like I needed to go anywhere. It was coming to me. Also, I believe from my yoga studies and meditation that sitting like this is important to basic sanity. It’s a grounded natural position to be in.
It had first been while S was on his back, bicycling his legs in the air, that I first began considering the salvia experience in terms of dream states. Aside from S’s seeming regression to an infantile state, a few other details suggested the relation: for example, that Z’s experience was fundamentally colored by a seemingly insignificant fan he had observed earlier; that S’s speech was incomprehensible even though he seemed to respond to our questions; that S, Z, and I felt a tremendous anxiety that was only exaggerated since we did not know what or why these things were happening to us; that the three of us felt a definitive moment in which we had returned to our ‘right mind’ despite lingering salvia effects; that Z had no memory of leaving the chair, falling to the ground, and returning to the chair; and finally, that we could only remember small aspects of our salvia experience, although whatever we did remember we are not bound to forget anytime soon.
Consider the above in light of how dreams often resurrect memories and early impressions of childhood that were imagined forgotten; how our dreams incorporate unremarkable elements of the day’s experiences; how while dreaming we often mumble in garbled speech that is incomprehensible to those awake even if we respond to their questions; how our anxiety-dreams are especially terrifying because we are not aware that we are dreaming; how there is a definite moment when we recognize we have emerged from a dream even though some time must pass before we fully waken; how we are later surprised to hear of our acts of somnambulism or other movements during sleep; and how we recollect only portions of our dreams, although we may remember some details vividly for years, even decades. When one considers all of this—and there is plenty more—then it seems that the salvia experience and the dream state bear much more than a merely superficial resemblance, although what that may be is for the oneirologists to say.
C had recommended the upright seated posture, but my increasing sense that salvia serves as a kind of dream dust bearing Sandman made me wonder whether perhaps the plant was best explored not seated but prostrate. I was fairly certain that I was not again to dabble with salvia after this trip so it seemed that if I wanted any more firsthand experience, it was, to use the hackneyed language of inspiration, now or never.
-I’m going to give it one more go, I suddenly said. I’m going to do it right here, lying on my back with my eyes shut, as if I were sleeping.
The final part of this essay is the August 4 posting
- Open Sandman: Salvia Divinorum, Lord of Dreams (Part III)
- Open Sandman: Salvia Divinorum, Lord of Dreams (Part I)